Review of Jane Glover’s “Mozart in Italy” – tracing the development of a musical genius.
Out of all the accounts of Wolfgang Mozart’s trips to Italy, there is one that stands out above all others. It recounts the day in Rome in April 1770 when the 14-year-old Mozart listened to Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for the first time. This piece is a nine-part polyphonic arrangement of a psalm and typically takes about 13 minutes to perform without any accompanying music. The Miserere includes a recurring high C note that adds an otherworldly element to the piece, a moment that had already given it a legendary status throughout Europe during Mozart’s lifetime and continues to be widely performed and recorded today.
The Miserere was composed in the 1630s specifically for the Sistine Chapel choir and was intended for performance solely during Holy Week. The Vatican kept the score as a closely guarded secret, with no written copies allowed to exist. However, on one particular day, a young Mozart heard the Miserere and then returned to his lodgings where he transcribed the entire piece from memory.
Some parts of the story are not completely reliable – for instance, there were a few copies of the score that already existed. However, the core of the story is undeniably true and rightfully so. It has become a representation of how history has viewed Mozart, as a composer endowed with extraordinary musical talents who passed away too soon at the age of 35 – Mozart as Amadeus rather than just Wolfgang. In her latest book, conductor and author Jane Glover does not question Mozart’s genius. Instead, she emphasizes that he lived in the harsh realities of the 18th century, with its filth, sickness, bedbugs, and discomfort, rather than being constantly surrounded by a romanticized image of brilliance.
Glover’s description of the visit to the Sistine Chapel is a prime example of the tendency for humanization present throughout her book. She points out that both Wolfgang and his father Leopold were likely exhausted from their recent journey to Rome, which had been a rough five-day coach ride through inclement weather from Florence. Additionally, she notes that Wolfgang returned to the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday, with his hastily written version of the Miserere hidden in his hat, to confirm that he had accurately transcribed it. This demonstrates his humanity and fallibility. Furthermore, his accomplishment was not kept secret, as even the pope was made aware of it and bestowed a papal honor upon him in recognition.
Mozart traveled to Italy on three separate occasions from 1769 to 1773, but never returned after that. However, his experiences there stayed with him and continue to influence us over 200 years later. This is primarily because Italy played a crucial role in honing Mozart’s skills in opera. The operas he attended in cities like Verona and Naples sparked his creative ideas, influenced his musical approach, and ultimately contributed to the success of his masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.
The young Mozart first traveled through the Brenner Pass in December 1769 as a talented child prodigy. However, when he departed from Italy for the last time in March 1773, he had become an accomplished opera composer. Italy was not only the birthplace of opera, but also known for its high standards in orchestral and vocal performances. It was a highly connected and competitive artistic community, and achieving success there meant reaching the top. In just four years, Mozart wrote three operas: Mitridate, re di Ponto in 1770, Ascanio in Alba in 1771, and Lucio Silla at the end of 1772. These works were all well-received and paved the way for Mozart’s future success.
Glover is a skilled and captivating writer who has a deep passion for both Italy and Mozart. Her descriptions of his creative techniques are especially intriguing, particularly his meticulous attention to the unique talents of each singer. In one of his writings, he expressed his desire for an aria to fit a singer as perfectly as a well-tailored suit. These qualities remained evident, particularly in his impressive compositions for his sister-in-law Josepha Hofer, who played the Queen of the Night in the debut of The Magic Flute in 1791. Mozart was a groundbreaking master of opera, and his time in Italy was crucial in shaping his craft.